The societal impact of targeted advertising

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We recently heard the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) announce they were going to crack down on adverts that stereotype gender roles and mock non-conformance (the full report can be found here). Whilst I absolutely commend a drive for equality through creative regulation, in the age of ultra-targeted advertising, I can’t help but think we need […]

We recently heard the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) announce they were going to crack down on adverts that stereotype gender roles and mock non-conformance (the full report can be found here).

Whilst I absolutely commend a drive for equality through creative regulation, in the age of ultra-targeted advertising, I can’t help but think we need to look a step further. For example, does featuring a man (rather than a woman) washing dishes in an advert for Fairy Liquid, really challenge gender stereotypes, if that advert is still targeted and therefore predominately seen by women?

Stereotyping customers based on gender is not the only pitfall of targeted advertising. The combination of tried-and-tested profiling based on personal and demographic information, with the wealth of behavioural data now available creates a utopia for advertisers.

This has enabled unprecedented efficiencies and allowed advertisers to realise campaigns that would otherwise not have been affordable. Historically to run a digital campaign targeting 16-24s you would have placed your ad on sites which over index against this audience.

For example:

We were targeting the site rather than the individual. We would have needed to reach all site visitors (100k) rather than just our target audience (70k). Therefore 30% of the media spend was wasted.

Now imagine that you’re an advertiser with a really niche target audience. If you still had to apply broad targeting capabilities there would be huge volumes of wasted spend in every campaign, negatively impacting return on investment. Now that we’re able to target at an individual level, advertisers can reach create smaller highly targeted and highly efficient campaigns.

However, this level of targeting does come at cost to the consumer. We’re now starting to see an ever-narrowing field of adverts and tailored content. This has a significant and far-reaching impact, not only on the products we buy, but the TV we ‘choose’ to watch, and even who we vote for.

 Targeted TV advertising enabled by AdSmart

Targeting within advertising is not exactly a new phenomenon. Even in 1924, GM revolutionised the car industry with “a car for every purpose”; which provided a different brand of car for each segment of the market. However, the introduction of digital has transformed an advertiser’s ability to target the individual through programmatic buys. In a bid to compete with digital targeting capabilities, we’ve seen the emergence of programmatic TV advertising tools such as AdSmart.

In 2014, Sky AdSmart launched in the UK. Based on household data stored on the Sky viewing card, the technology allows advertisers to display different TV ads, to different households, at exactly the same moment. It allows advertisers to target at a household level based on real data, rather than needing to create proxies and profiles for their target audience.

The targeting opportunities are endless. Not only can advertisers use the existing attributes (such as household composition, affluence, and post code area), but they can also map back their own customer data, or purchase 3rd party data to create even more specific audiences.

The AdSmart technology works by overlaying the linear commercial with the desired targeted advert. When an AdSmart campaign is created, a defined target audience is set up. If the household meets that criteria, then the creative copy is downloaded onto their set-top-box. It sits there until there is an opportunity for it to play out (when an AdSmartable commercial break is being viewed).

For example, Kem is a 45 year old man with high household affluence and no children. He might be shown an advert for a sports car. Amber is 35 year old mum of three with mid-high household affluence. She’s more likely to be shown an advert for a people carrier. AdSmart also allows advertisers to set a frequency cap ensuring delivery efficiencies and minimising creative wear out.

There is no debate that targeted TV advertising can achieve wonders for individual advertisers. Finally, it’s possible to run a TV campaign that is specific to instead of unnecessarily reaching the masses. This shift in focus towards improved quality of audience rather than maximising reach has helped drive cost efficiencies and minimise waste.

This is why AdSmart has managed to bring huge volumes of new advertisers to the TV market. Furthermore, from a customer perspective, the streamlined service of adverts has proven an added benefit. After all, what’s the point in an 80-year old man being served an ad for a Clear Blue pregnancy test?

Is there a risk of advertisers being too targeted, at the detriment of customer experience?

The growth of data capture and the development of data management platforms provide advertisers with a wealth of knowledge about each individual and helps profile customers. However, despite every effort to treat you as a unique person, the advertiser assumes your wants and needs are static and that you’re completely predictable, rational and incapable of spontaneous wants and desires.

Just because I bought an apple last Tuesday at 4pm, does not mean I want to do the same again this week. Statistically, it might be more likely, but to target me based on my previous behaviour does require a number of assumptions and can be short sighted.

To take this a step further, consider the process of buying a sofa.  With such a large, high emotion purchase, customers tend to spend several weeks researching across many different websites, all of which gets logged in cookie data. Naturally, during this period you’ll be served continuous adverts and offers from sofa companies. These ads will have been relevant at the time of the purchase decision process, however, as soon as you have your new sofa, the last thing you’re likely to want or need is another sofa.

However, many advertisers don’t have the luxury of knowing when purchases take place; and it’s likely that you’ll continue to be served sofa adverts for the foreseeable future. Targeting the lowest hanging fruit does make sense, but frequency caps and delivery rules must be used.

We saw a similar example on social media during the elections. You probably noticed during the UK 2017 General Election and Brexit Referendum, your social media feed being flooded with promoted content in line with your political affiliations.

If you expressed interest in a particular piece of content, that was recorded and in line with targeting algorithms, you will have been re-targeted with more of the same content. As a result, you may not have been exposed to a balanced perspective from all parties. When advertisers and political parties apply such a high level of behavioural profiling and re-targeting, it could be argued that this constitutes propaganda.

So, for customer centric advertisers, what’s the best way forward? Targeted advertising is just one piece of the puzzle in a brand’s marketing mix, and being overly reliant on targeted channels can actually mean missing potential opportunities.

Waste can be good

As an individual advertiser, with tough sales targets, it’s undeniable that only speaking to prospects with the highest propensity to buy is appealing. After all, a smaller audience reduces media spend without impacting short-term sales. However, reaching a wider audience doesn’t necessarily always need to be a bad thing. Speaking to a non-priority audience still creates brand awareness, which has significant long-term benefits.

Furthermore, consider the overall customer experience. Imagine if every single advert was targeted, and there was no mass linear commercial TV schedule. Every advert you’d see will have been chosen specifically for you. Suddenly the remit of adverts you’re shown is far narrower and appeals to your specific profile.

This has a huge impact on your potential for content discovery. Advertisers see a 28-year-old man who must play sport, drink Lucozade, and wear designer watches and a 28 year old woman must want to start a family and find a wedding dress. The reality is, people don’t fit neatly into these stereotypical segments anymore, which once again calls for a move towards broader targeting.

 What does the future have in store for consumers?

The question on my mind is whether there is enough governance around how advertisers target and deploy adverts. Without more stringent restrictions, and despite the positive new creative guidelines in place from the ASA, advertisers are still profiling and essentially deciding what different segments (often stereotypes) are exposed to.

We place so much emphasis on the content of the ad to prevent undue influence or offence, and yet little consideration is currently taken to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes which have longer-term impacts on impressionable generations.  Which begs the question; should somebody be taking responsibility for the negative societal and individual impact of the targeted ad industry? And if so, who?

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